DAY 24 – Call me Ishmael

January 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Ethics, humans and fish; prompted by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s revelation on a brief TV interview that he’d studied philosophy at Oxford; and that this had influenced his view on responsible sourcing. » Read the rest of this entry «

DAY 23

January 20th, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

Since a blog is, I suppose, a message to the world (Hello, world!), can I ask any of you who have seen my copy of

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Gregory Peck, above, but I mean the book, not the film), to return it – I hadn’t finished with it. How do you virtually return a book? I hadn’t thought of that. Post a comment, with a suggestion. Thanks.

On (or back) to a different topic; forgetfulness. remember Fallujah? It seems to me that it’s easier to remember war crimes of thirty years ago than the more recent ones; in fact, there was a great deal that I’d never known about the two battles of Fallujah in 2004 (April and November), and I found a helpful retrospective on the ‘toxic effects’ by Patrick Cockburn from two years back. There’s a great deal I learned from a meeting on ‘torture, drones, and detention’ last week (warning! if you click the link you get an audio file of a 1 1/2 hour meeting); but most particularly, that the US army kept detailed ‘biometric records’ – iris scans and fingerprints etc. – on everyone in Fallujah, and put them on ID cards which you had to carry to enter or leave the surrounded city, now half destroyed. Since when the database as been extended to 3 million Iraqis or ’10 percent of the population’.

Fallujah, 2004

On ‘leaving’ Iraq, which they have now supposedly done, the US started worrying that the data might get into the ‘wrong hands’, who might use it for purposes less ethical than neo-imperialist population control – e.g. settling old scores. So – the story is told – they took it off with them to West Virginia, where it now resides. (See this article.)

At which point the realist in this blog starts worrying about practicalities: How many kilobytes are there in one person’s biometric profile? What kind of a file is it? If you have three million of them and you want to shift them from Baghdad to Arlington, do you store them on one or several CDs (notoriously easy to leave in a taxi), or on the hard drive of a computer? Do you have to compress them first, perhaps using a lossy codec (say onto an MP3) which would risk losing you precisely the bits of data you needed and get a bad guy and a good guy confused? I don’t envy the US Army filekeepers their job.

The blog will return later – maybe much later – to the mathematical basis of iris scans and their (un)reliability, etc etc. The whole idea of this database is a) Orwellian, as everyone says and b) surreal. The author who could best do it justice is probably Borges.

To change the subject for a moment: a poem by Marianne Moore: ‘Feed me Also, River God’:

Lest by diminished vitality and abated 
   vigilance, I become food for crocodiles—for that quicksand 
   of gluttony which is legion. It is there close at hand—
      on either side 
      of me. You remember the Israelites who said in pride 

and stoutness of heart: "The bricks are fallen down, we will 
   build with hewn stone, the sycamores are cut down, we will 
   change to cedars"? I am not ambitious to dress stones, to 
      renew forts, nor to match 
      my value in action, against their ability to catch 

up with arrested prosperity. I am not like 
   them, indefatigable, but if you are a god, you will 
   not discriminate against me. Yet—if you may fulfill 
      none but prayers dressed 
      as gifts in return for your gifts—disregard the request.

I’ve been meaning for ever to give you a Billie Holiday track; and the snow (as she says, a good excuse), gives a chance, with the classic ‘It’s Easy to Blame the Weather‘. Keep warm – it’s cold in the resistance camp in the E1 zone.


DAY 22 (Adrift)

January 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The title reflects the fact that, typically, I asked a Christmas cracker riddle (when is a boat like a pile of snow?) in, I think, post 17 and failed to answer it. For those of you who are still at sea, the answer is ‘When it’s adrift’. » Read the rest of this entry «

DAY 21

January 16th, 2013 § Comments Off on DAY 21 § permalink

Wally at Wembley

I had written a lengthy and thoughtful dissertation on this picture (validity of using material from folk art, comparison of Wally with L. S. Lowry,…) Plus, an explanation on latitude. » Read the rest of this entry «

DAY 20 (Skrivers)

January 9th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink


New year, new Victorian measures to deal with it. The papers report that Tories are worried that they may be confusing ‘skivers’ with ‘strivers’, and if you’ve had too much champagne, it may be hard to remember the difference. You want to squeeze the skivers, and you hope that in so doing you will secure the loyalty of the strivers. But now some journalists are suggesting that in society’s Venn diagram, there may be a shaded area where the two overlap. (Well, they wouldn’t do that – they claim that you can be on benefits and still be a striver rather than a skiver. But let’s be more philosophical.) Many people I know, and who makes the point better than the mathematicians, are what I’d call ‘skrivers’, combining the two roles – happily or guiltily, depending on the temperament. A mathematician spends the day typically lying on the sofa, claiming to think about some problem the nature of which he/she can’t explain. He/she considers it right that this way of passing the time should be rewarded.

In terms of what’s called ‘returns to education’ (a term I only just learned, thanx and a tip of the Hatlo hat to Jacob Mincer), this is obviously right; the combined B.A. and Ph. D. should lead to ten years’ mean increments on top of the national mean wage calculated by linear regression from a large enough sample – are you still with me? In practice, if the mathematician should be so unfortunate as to land up at the Jobcentre, s/he is likely to be branded a skiver unless retraining as an accountant is a possibility.

So, for one of the earliest words of 2013 and one of the most useful, I propose to copyright ‘skriver’. (Hang on! Even Humpty Dumpty didn’t claim that you could copyright a word – although you can copyright a two-second guitar chord (Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 792 (6th Cir. 2005)). But I digress.) The word is a straightforward portmanteau in the Lewis Carroll tradition, and means someone who is at once a skiver and a striver. I guess that means most of us, at one time or another.

Isn’t easy to go on about a subject in this way and run it into the ground? This must be how academic papers are written. (In soft subjects like sociology I mean, not in hard science, oh no.) I should write a paper about that, or maybe we’re getting too self-referential.

For today’s homework, I propose the theme: ‘How do we know where we are?’ The point being, to give you a clue: you can get out your phone and discover that you are in Tahrir Square (say). How does the phone know – what is this new technology, and how does it differ from what we had fifty years ago (no mobile phones, of course)? I’ll try to come back with a meditation on this theme in the next post, mentioning, of course, al-Biruni and the ever-popular John Harrison.

I praised Benjamin Zephaniah the other day for turning down an award which had to do with the empire. So I should post one of his works – here goes.

De Rong Song

Your house is
Falling down
And you got
To eat,
Don’t worry
Be happy.
Your fish
Have drowned
You wear
A frown,
You search
But you don’t
Own a pound,
Don’t worry
Be happy.

You ain’t got
Nowhere to
Just balconies
Don’t worry
Be happy.

You meet
You really like,
They tell you to
Get on your bike,
Don’t worry
Be happy.

You’re on your bike
And all is fine,
You get caught
In a washing line,
Don’t worry
Be happy.
You go to school
The school is
The Government
Put pressure on,
Don’t worry
Be happy.
Your tea is
Your ice is
Your head is
Tied up in a
Don’t worry
Be happy.
You worry
You’re hurrying,
And hurry
You’re worrying,
Don’t happy
Be worried.

To conclude, a beautiful video from Stomp on the joys of cooking.

DAY 19

January 7th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

and the first of 2013 – a time for resolutions. What? I shall try, not to blog more frequently, » Read the rest of this entry «

Where am I?

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